Sam Choy Wants to Cook in Your Kitchen
Sam Choy might not be running any O‘ahu restaurants, but this beloved local chef is cooking in more kitchens than ever.
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Choy adds roasted ‘ulu to a tomato-basil sauce with wilted spinach and kale. He slices up leftover stuffed acorn squash, turning this days-old meal into something new and interesting.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
That fig-and-olive preserve became the surprising element in a unique vegetarian fried rice Choy concocted for Dingeman’s 17-year-old daughter Alexis, who doesn’t eat meat. In a large wok, he fried leftover brown-basmati and white rice, then added sweet peppers, garlic and grilled teriyaki-flavored chickenlike strips made from soy and pea protein. He pulled apart the rice to create a hole, into which he cracked two eggs and scrambled them right in the wok. Then, right before serving the fried rice, he added the sweet fig-and-olive spread and a drizzle of Sriracha mayo. Though it sounds unlikely, it worked, proving the merits of Choy’s outside-the-box approach to home cooking.
“The sweet-salty-spicy combo tasted great,” Dingeman says. “We learned to not be afraid to experiment. As long as you keep tasting as you go along, you probably won’t go wrong.”
Choy grew up in the small Mormon town of Lā‘ie, the son of a Hawaiian-German mother and Chinese father who ran the Hukilau Café, famous for its pake cakes (Chinese tea cookies). He graduated from Kahuku High in 1970 and, a year later, married his high school sweetheart, Carol. They have two sons, Sam Jr. and Christopher, and three granddaughters.
After Choy graduated from the culinary arts program at Kapi‘olani Community College, one of his first jobs was in the kitchen at the posh Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, almost 5,000 miles away from home. He returned to the Islands, opening his first stand-alone restaurant, Kaloko, on the Big Island in 1981. (It earned the James Beard America’s Classics Award in 2004, the year the restaurant closed.) He moved to Kona permanently three years later.
Choy transforms leftover rotisserie chicken into a sophisticated chicken tofu dish using ingredients he found in the kitchen.
In 1991, Choy was one of 12 Hawai‘i chefs who established Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, a culinary movement that combined local ingredients with world cuisines. His fame here and abroad was soaring. Four years later, he opened the upscale restaurant Sam Choy’s Diamond Head on Kapahulu Avenue. And two years after that, he created a more casual concept with Sam Choy’s Breakfast Lunch & Crab on Nimitz Highway.
Choy had a long run with both O‘ahu restaurants. His Diamond Head location closed in 2008 after 13 years due to skyrocketing expenses; Breakfast Lunch & Crab shut down in 2013 after 15 years, with Choy deciding not to renew the lease.
He had already moved on.
“I’m just having fun outside Hawai‘i,” says Choy, who now travels five months out of the year.
This new show, though, puts Choy squarely back in the Islands—in the kitchen. Now he’s creating gourmet-level food in the home kitchens of local families who both respect and relate to him.
“I love teaching, I love giving people the confidence that they can do it,” Choy says. “It’s one of my feathers in my cap.”
Choy puts HONOLULU editor Robbie Dingeman and her teenage daughter, Alexis, to work in their own kitchen. “We learned to not be afraid to experiment,” Dingeman says.
This morning in Kailua, Choy confidently and comfortably moves around Dingeman’s kitchen, directing Alexis to rinse cherry tomatoes and requesting lemon basil and green onions from the garden outside. Though a professionally trained and seasoned chef, Choy has a likability and relaxed candor that make him the perfect ambassador for local-style cooking. He gets excited when he sees a jar of Best Foods mayonnaise in the fridge—he calls it “cowboy gravy”—and cuts off the salmon skin and offers it to the house cat. As he sautées the ‘ulu in a marinara sauce, he notices an olive-oil dispenser that resembles a genie lamp with a slender spout. “No Hawaiian tita is coming out of that!” he says, throwing his head back in laughter. “‘I can feel the rub, but cut this top!’”
It might seem intimidating to have a famous chef poking around your fridge, possibly judging you. But it doesn’t take long for us to forget Choy’s accolades and cookbooks and, soon, he’s just a fun guy coming over to make us some food.
A quick tip from Choy: Instead of dirtying extra dishes, scramble the eggs right into
“Anybody who loves to cook must have had that fantasy of having a chef come over and cook with their family,” Dingeman says. “And Sam Choy manages to be awe-inspiring and approachable at the same time.”
In the next hour, Choy whips up gourmet dish after dish, using whatever he finds in the fridge and freezer. He turns half a rotisserie chicken into a chicken tofu dish with ginger, garlic, tamari, brown sugar, oyster sauce,red onions, broccoli and spinach. He takes a variety of half-empty bottles—a liliko‘i-balsamic dressing from Kahuku Farms, Kinilau sauce from Alicia’s Market, Abodoloco’s Hamajang hot sauce, Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce and Sriracha—and creates a spicy dressing for a clever layered salad he makes with spinach and kale topped with leftover poke, grilled mahi mahi, baked chicken thighs and flaked salmon.
“I think we’re pretty good about using our leftovers in lunches and in clean-out-the-fridge night,” Dingeman says. “But Sam showed us we could take all kinds of leftovers, mix, match and combine them into dishes that turn out a lot different from the first time we fixed them. That made for completely new meals that were way more interesting than eating the same food heated up two or three times.”
This is Choy’s new mission. He wants local families to learn how to cook smart and healthy, something he started to focus on when he tipped the scales at 405 pounds almost a decade ago. (“I got on this health kick after my doctor, Eugene Wong, said he would be signing my death certificate in a few years,” says Choy, who has since replaced midnight milkshakes with fresh fruits. “My blood was coming in borderline diabetic. I was just really unhealthy.”)
But he’s not ruling anything out. Maybe he’ll open another restaurant on O‘ahu someday. Right now, though, he’s happy where he is: never in one place for too long.
“You do things in life and you start to look at the bigger picture,” Choy says. “You can grind forever in restaurants, and the return is very small. But you can do other things that are much more fun and have more impact.”
Sam’s Pantry Essentials
Here’s what every kitchen should have to help turn leftovers into new dishes:
● Shoyu ● Extra virgin olive oil ● Sriracha ● Hoisin or barbecue sauce ● Hot sauce ● Mayonnaise ● Frozen veggies ● Cheese ● Canned beans ● Fresh and dry herbs ● Evaporated milk ● Vinegar ● Cooking wine ● Brown sugar ● Honey or agave ● Tortilla ● Dried fruits ● Peanut butter ● Applesauce ● Chicken, beef or vegetable broth ● Tomato sauce and paste ● Panko or breadcrumbs ● Maple syrup
Sam Choy’s In the Kitchen, Airs 6:30 p.m. Sundays on KHON